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Peter Lorre



The pudgy moon-faced man cowers before the crowd, his eyes darting back and forth.

"Always," he says softly, "there's this terrible force inside me, driving me on. I'm always afraid of myself. Of people. Of ghosts." His voice is rising, becoming frantic. "Always I must walk the streets alone. And always I am followed-soundlessly. YetI hear it. It's me, pursuing myself. I want to run-to escape-from myself. But I can't. I can't escape. I must obey. Forced to run endless streets, pursued by ghosts. Ghosts of mothers. And of those children. They are always there-always!" He is screaming now. "Who knows what it's like to be me? How I'm forced to act. How I don't want to but must!"


It is Peter Lorre as Hans Beckert, pleading for his life in the climactic moments of Fritz Lang's M (1931), the story of a man driven by a compulsion to kill. It was Lorre's greatest role. It was also, in a way, a blueprint for his life. Like Beckert, Lorre was a man pursued by and pursuing his past, never able to obtain what he wanted in a 33-year film career which can now be seen on tape. He was tragically stymied by his talents and compulsions.

[[wysiwyg_imageupload:280:]]Born Laszlo Loewenstein in Rosenberg, Hungary in 1904, Lorre became fascinated with improvisational acting and psychology at an early age. "Psychology was Lorre's first love; his avocation," notes Stephen D. Youngkin in The Films of Peter Lorre. "He numbered among his patients the characters he rendered on screen." Performing in clubs and small theaters, the actor eventually caught the eye of playwright Bertolt, known for his "social" dramas, such as The Threepenny Opera. The writer was fascinated by Lorre's ability to suggest so much with so littleby widening his eyes or lowering his whispery voice-and there was a strange dichotomy in his boyish face and half-closed eyes. He seemed both innocent and malicious at the same time-a child ready to kill.

Lorre himself was aware of his unusual looks and exploited them fully. He realized he was not a traditional leading man, and so was reluctant to sign with director Fritz Lang when the filmmaker approached him in 1930 with a movie role. It was the part of a child murderer, based on the real case of a psychopath who killed because he had to. The story fascinated Lang as a treatise for the care of the insane, and he saw Lorre as perfect casting: he looked so cherubic himself, how could he be a killer?

For Lorre, who eventually accepted, the role meant more: it was an opportunity to capture a psychologically dense personality onscreen and make him attractive. The audience would feel for him even as they loathed him. "It is all a matter of understanding," he explained. "I did not see the actual murderer. I did not need to ....murder. His voice, his looks, his attitude all indicate a man betrayed; you can feel for him even as you fear him. "I won't go back!" he yells when threatened with a sanitarium. "You won't make me!" Yet all he could do was go back. "I remember that he referred to his work as an actor as 'making faces'," remarked a colleague, Margaret Taichet, in The Films of Peter Lorre, "and I'm sure there was a bit of boredom and bitterness that he did always get the same type of roles. "
A planned Broadway stage production of the life of Napoleon fell through. His personal finances were shaky, as was his health. In despair, he took on more horror parts, and his self-image reached a low ebb. (Typical of the fan mail received and the replies he gave was this exchange: "Dear Master, I would love to be tortured by you." Lorre: "You have been tortured enough by going to see my pictures.")

Then John Huston cast him as the effeminate Joel Cairo in his remake of The Maltese Falcon (1941), starring Humphrey Bogart. The performance-a mixture of childishness, menace, and suavity combines much from before, but is also a masterpiece of understatement. Cairo seems like a child playing grownup and he is compelled, once again, to kill and to search for the elusive, priceless falcon. More importantly, though, work on the movie rejuvenated Lorre's life. The camaraderie of the Warner Brothers production-Huston, Bogart, Lorre, and others would play cards between takes - helped Lorre enjoy his work, and he felt opportunities were opening up again.

He did more for the studio, most notably Casablanca (1943), in which he makes a small part a telling one. His two scenes bring out the essential Lorre: the slippery kid, wanting so much to be liked ("You must be impressed with me now") and the man trapped by powers beyond his abilities ("Rick! Rick! Help me, please! "). It is Lorre's life again, and he plays it with fervor.

These were to be his last great movies. Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) demonstrates his gift for comedy, taking the helplescompulsion of M to comic levels. It also introduces a new Lorre figure, also probably taken from the frustrations of his life: the happy boozer who copes with murder and mayhem through the bottle.[[wysiwyg_imageupload:281:]]

The films got worse now, and Lorre was never able to break away. He tried in vain to sell his old mentor Brecht's film treatments, and when the playwright left Hollywood in disgust was tempted to join him in a new European theater-company project.
It had been Lorre's dream to do serious work again, but it was too late. He didn't have the strength to give up what he had become.

"I can't stand living in Europe," he explained later. "I like Hollywood .... It is not a crazy, nervous place. An actor is less bothered here than anywhere else. You can live your life as you please and nobody cares." That was the problem. Nobody did care-about all the work Lorre put into his roles (the New York Times remarked that "Hollywood has used Lorre's tricks but not his talent"), about his frustrations, or about his money worries. He had been twice married now and had put his finances in the hands of an incompetent business manager. When it all came apart, Lorre returned to Germany in disgust.

There he made one last attempt to escape from the "ghosts" of his terror-movie past. Der Verlorene ("The Lost One"), written and directed by the actor, was a grim, realistic story of the aftereffects of World War II on Germany. Lorre played another tortured soul, as psychologically layered as Beckert had been, and also compelled in the end to murder. He put his all into the movie. "With a patience which I had never before experienced," noted an actress in the film, "Lorre tested further and further, until one gave oneself up almost unconsciously in order to be the person that one had to portray .... The filming was hard but wonderful."

Yet the movie was a critical and commercial failure. It was, commented critic David Thomson, the "turning point that failed to turn ... a worthy film that lacked his poetic eccentricity as a supporting actor."

For Lorre, it was effectively the end. He gave up trying to be a serious actor and relied only on his tricks-not his talent-to get by. Entering a sanitarium afterwards, he gained 100 pounds and became a grotesque parody of himself (when appearing in Five Weeks in a Balloon, Groucho Marx asked him, "Do you play the balloon?"). It was as though the lack of control in his career had been externalized in his girth.

He played in comedies, melodramas, horror parodies in movies, on television (which he hated), and on radio. He became, in such films as Tales of Terror (1962), a hollow man, a Beckert compelled to act no matter how degrading. "Making movies used to be such fun, " he said near the end of his life. "It isn't any longer. Now it's a very coldhearted business."

[[wysiwyg_imageupload:282:]]Yet, finally, his work has not been ignored. "Lorre is one of the great screen personalities, " wrote David Thomson in A Biographical Dictionary of Film. "Perhaps he was a genius frustrated by the various sanities and insanities of the world. But perhaps he came very close to the very nature of film with his extraordinary combination of impact and nonsense. He hardly seems dead, just as it is difficult to believe that he was ever clinically alive. He was Peter Lorre, and that was unmistakably something that no one else was capable of being."

He died suddenly in 1964 of a cerebral hemorrhage. His last film was called, appropriately enough, The Patsy.

VIDEO, 1984